Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Offering of Food

For my dear friend Peter, on his birthday:

Old friend from university days. She comes to meet me during my visit to a far-away city for a wedding. She takes a taxi and travels 2 hours up and 2 hours down with a fidgety son, to just spend half an hour with me, before I go away. And before leaving, she gives me two jars full of the ripe mango curry she made especially for me. She remembered that I loved it so much when I visited her place - and that was 16 years ago.......

A memory that returns every year, when I cut the first ripe mangoes of the season, in April. And like the April rains on parched earth, it refreshes me, reminds me that all is not lost, there is hope, there is still so much caring, so much giving, all around us.

I am always deeply touched by the offering of food. It moves me more than any other gift. A strongly etched memory from my favorite Amar Chitra Katha comic book of childhood days, 'Sudama' - the powa (flattened rice) that the poverty-stricken Sudama takes when he goes to meet his childhood friend, Krishna.

Sudama and Krishna were classmates and close friends at the sage Sandipani’s gurukula, for many long years. At the end of this period, they part ways, each to meet his own destiny. Krishna to become king, and Sudama a teacher, as befitted his caste and station in life. Later, Sudama and his family fall on bad times. The children are hungry; his wife has been borrowing food and money from the neighbors to get by.

Then one day she suddenly remembers, and asks hesitantly, "Maybe you could go and meet Krishna? Weren’t you very close?". She borrows some powa from the neighbour, which Sudama had told her was Krishna’s favorite food in childhood, so that her husband does not go to visit the great king empty-handed. Sudama sets off with the powa wrapped in a cloth bundle, tied to his waist.

Krishna sees him from the distance, from the palace balcony where he was enjoying the evening breeze with his consort Rukmini. This poor Brahmin in old clothes walking to the palace gates hesitantly, as if he feared being turned away. Krishna runs down with great excitement and rushes past surprised courtiers and guards, and embraces Sudama. While people watch in amazement, he makes Sudama sit on his throne, asks his wife to bring water, and washes his feet with great affection, like one does with an honored guest.

Overwhelmed, and surrounded by splendour, Sudama is embarrassed to offer his humble gift of powa to the mighty king. He is astonished when Krishna grabs at his bundle playfully, 'Hey, you have brought me something!', and then pounces on the poha greedily when Sudama offers it to him with great hesitation. Krishna is overjoyed, deeply touched that his old friend remembered.

"Sudama", he says, "the poorest of gifts given to me with love are dearer to me than the richest of gifts given without love."

All those who have fed me, with so much warmth, thank you so much. You have given me so much more than food.

What is your favorite memory of being fed, receiving food, from a friend or a stranger?

*Photo from Google Images

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rang De!

A sea of gray and brown. Descending to Nagpur, you see trees and shrubs burned by the scorching sun. And then, five hours of passing dried-up fields and denuded forests, with occasional patches of green. There was no way you would have guessed that bright pink and blue and green would be the colours that would define Pusad for you from now on. That the dreaded 42 degree heat would not seem like much. That you would return energized, not tired.

Three of us volunteers/social investors were on a Rang De borrower evaluation trip to Pusad, near Nagpur, Maharashtra, last weekend. Pusad, in Yavatmal district, where the cotton farmers kill themselves, unable to repay loans. We were to meet with women who had taken loans from Rang De, and evaluate their experience.

What we saw was empowerment. And so much positive energy and grit! Slum women speaking with confidence and pride about buying a buffalo, setting up a grocery shop, starting a tailoring business, a tiffin centre, a spice business, sending their daughters and sons to school, becoming decision-makers at home – freed from the fear of moneylenders, and the humiliation of being ill-treated by them. And we saw such selfless dedication – from the workers at Sagras, the field partner who distributes our loans and educates the women on managing their money better.

And we also saw tiny shanty-houses of wood and steel which the women had painted pink and blue and green inside and decorated with brightly-coloured pictures of gods and goddesses. And huge welcoming smiles and warm hospitality, and an amazing sense of community and togetherness - no one was alone among them. (All that we traded for individual wealth and personal space…)

There are still many issues they need to tackle, for example, the size of their families because of the social pressure of having a boy child, poor sanitary conditions etc. But the confidence they now have, that it is possible to be in control and change their families’ lives, to dream of a good future for their kids, that there are strangers who care for them - has already brought them many rungs up the ladder of progress.

On the way back, you think of Ram and Smita, the young couple who founded Rang De, giving up a comfortable life in the UK. 13,298 people (and growing), mostly women, now live better lives because they dared to dream. And followed it up with action.

It is mind-blowing, how far kindness reaches, whom it connects you to. The women of Pusad already have so much colour in their houses. And Rang De has brought them the colours they lacked.

Yet again, you are struck by the sheer amount of positive energy in this country. So many amazing people choosing to give. To share. To lead change. There is so much colour here, in every way. Add yours to it. Rang De!